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John Richard Pilger (1939–2023)

by Amy Ripley

from Sydney Morning Herald

The crusading Australian journalist John Pilger, who died on December 30 aged 84, made it his lifetime’s work to speak truth to power and stand up for the vulnerable, marginalised and dispossessed, often in hidden, unfashionable corners of the world such as East Timor, Vietnam and Palestine. His own country did not escape his scorching gaze, and he was relentless in his criticism of its treatment of Indigenous Australians.

He was feature writer and chief foreign correspondent on the London Daily Mirror between 1962 and 1986, a columnist for the New Statesman and contributor to many other international newspapers, including the New York TimesThe Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. His reporting and analysis, including of the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Biafra, brought him international recognition. 

He reported from the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s and marched alongside America’s poor from Alabama to Washington after the assassination of Martin Luther King. He witnessed the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the presidential candidate, in June 1968. His four-year Mirror campaign in the early 1960s helped achieve compensation for nearly 100 children who suffered deformities after their mothers were prescribed thalidomide in pregnancy.

In 1970, he joined flagship ITN foreign affairs program World in Action. His first report, The Quiet Mutiny, investigated the collapse of morale among US soldiers in the Vietnam War. Later works for ITN included Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia (1979), which depicted the horrors of the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regime, Nicaragua: A Nation’s Right to Live (1983) and Death of a Nation: the Timor conspiracy (1994). 

His documentaries on Australia, notably The Secret Country (1983), the bicentenary trilogy The Last Dream (1988), Welcome to Australia (1999) and the cinema film Utopia (2013) revealed much of the country’s “forgotten past”, especially its troubled history with its Indigenous population.

His numerous books include The Last Day (1975), Aftermath: The Struggle of Cambodia and Vietnam (with Anthony Barnett, 1981), Heroes (1986), A Secret Country (1989), Distant Voices (1992), Hidden Agendas (1998), The New Rulers of the World (2002) and Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs (as editor, 2004).

But as well as garnering accolades, his furious polemical style cast him as a polarising figure. His trenchant criticism of American, Australian and British foreign policy divided the journalistic world, with his more gentlemanly peers of the British press critical of his campaigning style and unwillingness to acknowledge nuance.

When he won the Richard Dimbleby Award for broadcasting excellence (Bafta) in 1991, Dimbleby’s son, David, who was, like his father, an eminence gris of the broadcasting world, scoffed that Pilger was not a broadcaster “in the sense that the award was meant”. Sir Robin Day refused to present the award and Cambridge academic John Casey weighed in, declaring “everything about him—the woeful yet shifty countenance, the sepulchral tone of his voice, the lugubrious sentimentality of his style of writing—makes it impossible to believe anything he says.”

Pilger came out swinging against the criticism while also giving the impression of secretly enjoying the furore—it was water off a duck’s back.

John Richard Pilger was born on October 9, 1939. His parents, Claude and Elsie, both grew up in the coalfields of the Hunter Valley, where Claude had begun working as a miner aged 15. Elsie was a French teacher and met her husband in the library of the Mechanics Institute in Sydney. They both had a strong commitment to social justice, and when once asked what they were “for”, Elsie replied, “we’re for the underdog”.

This sense of social responsibility influenced both John and his elder brother, Graham, born in 1932, who would grow up to become a respected disability rights activist who advised the Whitlam government.

The family home was a tiny, dark, tin-roofed house in Bondi. At this time, as Australia crawled out of the shadow of the Great Depression, Bondi was a far cry from the ritzy beachside suburb it is today. As Pilger wrote in his 1990 book The Secret Country:

“Bondi was alleys of litter and smashed beer bottles and fences of rusted corrugated iron, and faded art deco flats, with stairwells that smelt of cabbage, and ‘Bondi semis’ where the occupants never seemed to turn on the lights. Bondi was men coughing up their innards in a rush-hour tram because an entire Australian division was mustard-gassed on the Western Front. Bondi was men weaving home on a Saturday night clutching bottles of Dinner Ale, shaped like ten-pins, and bottles of Shelley’s lemonade for the kids and a chook for the missus: the chook having been ‘acquired’, or won in a pub raffle.”

John loved the beach – somewhere he described as “the great Australian democracy” – and swimming and surfing. This love would stay with him for his whole life and he told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 1990 that no other beach ever compared to Bondi.

He attended Bondi Public School, where he was school captain. At Sydney Boys High, rowing was another waterborne passion and he made the first eight in 1957, trained by Graham, a talented rowing coach. Although he first considered being an artist, he settled on journalism and established a successful school newspaper called The Messenger.

After school, he started a four-year cadetship with Australian Consolidated Press at their building on Elizabeth Street which he recalled “smelt of ink and smoke and sweat—these were the happiest days of my life”. His time as a copy boy on the Sydney Sun taught him valuable lessons including that no sentence should be longer than 16 words, to always deploy the active voice and that use of adjectives required dispensation from the chief sub-editor.

After the Sydney Sun, he moved to The Daily Telegraph—“a wonderful place”—where he worked as a reporter, sub-editor and sports writer. Eager to see the world, he headed to Europe, one of the gilded generation that included Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James who left Australia to seek excitement and meaning and never returned.

He arrived in London in 1962, in the middle of the worst winter since 1792, when the country froze and snow drifts blocked Hammersmith Bridge. His first stop was Reuters, where he hoped to burnish his credentials as a foreign correspondent but soon left because he didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk.

He got a job on the Daily Mirror—then a great British campaigning tabloid under the legendary editor Hugh Cudlip—after promising the assistant editor that he could play cricket and would help the Mirror team win in a match against the Daily Express the following week. He got the job despite fibbing about his cricketing prowess, and his 20-year celebrated career at the Mirror began. He was eventually forced out, 18 months after new owner and later confirmed fraudster Robert Maxwell joined. He returned in 2001 for a stint under then-editor Piers Morgan after the 9/11 attacks.

In his later years, he continued to rattle cages. Vociferous in support of controversial figures such as Julian Assange, he was also vehement in his criticism of liberal darlings such as Tony Blair, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

He received numerous prizes at the Press Awards including Journalist of the Year twice, in 1967 and 1979. He was awarded an Emmy in 1991 for his documentary Cambodia, the Betrayal. In 2009, he was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. 

In 2017, he received the Order of Timor Leste, using his acceptance speech to demand that Australia to issue repatriations to its nearest neighbour, saying it owed the tiny country “a huge debt”.

In 2004, he was appointed a visiting professor at Cornell University. In 2017, the British Library announced it would open an archive to hold his work. He was inducted into the Melbourne Press Club Hall of Fame in 2018.

He was married twice; first to journalist Scarth Flett, with whom he had a son, Sam, in 1973. His second marriage to journalist Yvonne Roberts produced a daughter, Zoe, who was born in 1984.

Pilger had a complicated relationship with his home country. While he was disapproving of the political classes and what he saw as their colonialist, imperialist foreign policies, he was quick to acknowledge the aspects of antipodean life that he loved, including the egalitarian nature of the beach and its diverse, multicultural society.

Although he never lived in Australia again after he left in 1962, he returned frequently, saying in 2018, “wherever I’ve reported from in the world, I’ve never forgotten Sydney”.

John Pilger is survived by his family.

Original publication

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Citation details

Amy Ripley, 'Pilger, John Richard (1939–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/pilger-john-richard-34008/text42634, accessed 20 April 2024.

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